This is a guest blog submitted by Nancy Romps as part of our Autism Awareness Month and Disney celebration. Enjoy!
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Four days into an extended-family trip to Walt Disney World, I was three hours into occupying a couple of square feet at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. But I wasn’t in line for a thrill ride, a Mickey ice cream bar or even the restroom; I was hanging out with a horse.
No, not a live horse, or even a costumed character. It was a life-size statue, complete with saddle and stirrups, outside one of the Studios’ many gift shops. And after four straight days of sensory overload and overstimulation, it was exactly where my then 6-year-old daughter, Colleen, needed to be.
For almost two years, our family had been searching for a diagnosis that would put a name to Colleen’s differences and help us navigate her needs. Mother’s instinct had whispered “autism” early in the process, but the professionals just couldn’t come to a consensus. One neuropsychologist actually congratulated us when her testing didn’t indicate autism, but my mood was far from celebratory. All I knew was we were no closer to understanding what was going on than when we began.
A resort known for loud noises and crowds certainly wouldn’t have been my first choice at that point in time, but because the trip was a gift from my in-laws I was determined to make the best of it. Overall Colleen enjoyed the sights and time with the extended family, but she wasn’t able to handle more than an hour or two in the parks before zoning out. Time and again, heading toward an exit with my daughter while the rest of the family sought out attractions and thrills, I decided that we were doing Disney “wrong” … until a horse told me otherwise.
We weren’t 100 yards past the entrance to the Studios when Colleen spotted the horse and begged for a closer look. She immediately hoisted herself onto the saddle and lost herself in imaginative play. For the first time on the trip, she seemed totally at ease and at peace. We had nowhere in particular to be and the spot was shady, so we hunkered down with our new equine friend. From atop the horse, Colleen contently watched the crowds, street performers and even the afternoon parade. Five years later, she remembers exactly how she felt on “her” horse that day: “Happy. Safe. Secure.”
After the trip, I immediately put in a call to the children’s hospital where Colleen had been undergoing evaluations and asked to be seen as soon as possible by a different neuropsychologist. This time I insisted that we dig deeper for answers. Among my list of atypical behaviors, the one that stopped the new neuropsychologist in her tracks was my report of our time with the horse at Disney. It was just one piece to our puzzle, but it was enough for the professionals to understand what they had missed the first time around.
Six months later, after a fresh set of testing, we had a definitive diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. And because the result was like winning my personal Super Bowl, this was my reaction: “We’re going to Disney World.”
Yes, we would return to Walt Disney World. But this time I was armed with more than sunscreen, comfortable shoes and cash: I would have information. Research brought me to resources about managing autism in the parks (in particular, the trip reports written by The Special Mouse’s own Kathy Kelly; support her Kickstarter book project here!). I knew that flexibility would be the key to our enjoyment, not how many attractions we rode or how many characters we met.
For that second family trip, I crafted comfortable mouse ears for Colleen out of felt and a soft black headband. And because of this and subsequent visits to the World, I have learned that it makes perfect sense to ride Spaceship Earth on repeat on cool summer nights. And that you can spend happy hours watching lizards scamper around the landscaping, or crashing a courtyard wedding from the safety of your hotel’s balcony.
And, above all, we now know that even after you learn to enjoy the sights and attractions at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, you’ll always find time to visit an old friend.
Colleen at age 7, one year after first meeting “her” horse at Disney’s Hollywood Studios
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Thank you for your post, Nancy!
This blog series is brought to you by Walt Disney World with Autism: a Special Needs Guide. Please visit our page on Kickstarter to support it’s publication — thanks!